Beauty and the Beast: back to the beginning

More ambitious than previous New Vic Christmas productions, Beauty and the Beast isn’t quite accessible to children as the others, but does a good job for the mostly adult audience it attracted instead.

The first thing I have to congratulate the New Vic for is making it through the Christmas season in one piece. I hardly need remind you of what a nightmare it’s been a second year running. Their sister theatre the Stephen Joseph, having bucked the trend last year so well, ended up cancelling half its run. From my end of the woods, only two of the five Christmas productions made it through the full run. And yet somehow, the New Vic has made it unscathed. That alone will be welcome news: the New Vic Christmas production is one of the most lucrative ones around, running well into January to cater for the school parties from miles around queuing up for tickets. This is not the first time they’ve impressed me with their resilience: when I saw The Wind in the Willows three years ago, I saw surprised to discover Mr. Toad dropped out sick, a minor character stepped in at short notice, and the rest of the cast covered his parts – and made it look like that’s how they planned to do it all along. This time round, maybe it was just luck. But well done anyway – I don’t know how how did it, but you made it.

But I digress. There are no finishers medals her, we must look at the play itself. This production, postponed from 2020 (with its small-scale replacement Coppelia itself postponed seven months), is Theresa Heskins’ take on a fairy story, but unlike a certain very popular touring show going on right now, this one goes to great lengths to avoid the Disneyfication. The 1990s film, classic though it is, took major liberties with the original plot – which is fine, but in all of the subsequent stage shows and live-action remakes Disney has an irritating habit of behaving like their animated films are the originals rather than take a second look at the source material. Heskins, on the other hand, brings back long-forgotten parts of the original book. Rather than being transformed into a Beast for refusing shelter to an old woman (which I always thought was a bit of an over-reaction), his predicament comes about from the Goblin wars in revenge for his warmongering warrior-Queen mother, which is a more understandable. And so the stage play begins with the little-known tale of the Goblins spinning their tales of mischief – mischief that unfortunately escalates rather quickly.

For the avoidance of doubt, Belle does not open with the song about there being more than this old provincial life. She doesn’t have a self-appointed fiancé/stalker, but she does have a pair of sisters whom Cinderella would be happy to swap notes with. Belle’s sisters are not evil as such, or even ugly, but they are entitled and selfish. True to the original (and most pre-Disney versions) she has ended up as a reluctant guest in the Beast’s castle as a price demanded of her father for picking a rose. Without a showdown with aforementioned fiancé/stalker, the focus is a lot more on the relationship as Belle begin to understand her host, which her host shrinks away and feels shame over what he is.

However, there is a weakness with the play’s structure. The entire backstory of how Belle ended up in the Beast’s palace is concertinaed into the first scene she appears on. I know there’s a long-standing rule that you should start the action as late into the story as you can, but this I feel took it too far and left us with too much catching up to do (especially as it’s left up to the immature sisters of Belle to explain this), and we’re already taking in the goblin-heavy prologue. As a result, unlike Wind in the Willows, Prince and the Pauper and Coppelia, this isn’t the most accessible play for children, and I saw very few children in the audience. Surprisingly, they seem to have got away with that, with a high number of adults seemingly compensating for the low number of children. But I feel the complexity was avoidable, and I would have considered moving the goblin sequence to after the interval once we’ve had time to get to to speed with the present.

But the greatest attraction of the play is Laura Wilstead’s set. All the the New Vic’s Christmas plays I’ve seen have done good sets but this one is the most impressive. One one level, it is a visually striking interior of the Beast’s Palace, but on another level it is an extremely versatile set that has multiple uses throughout the story. When the entire stage is not being used as a hallway or a dining room, individual segments of the floor that previously only served as a pattern are lit up to become corridors, with frames descending from the ceiling to become doorways, another octagonal frame springs up from the floor to become a magic mirror, and flowers spring from the floor when it’s time to enter the garden. Another impressive effect was the transformation at the end (spoiler: the Beast turns back into a Prince at the end), which somehow managed to achieve before I realised they’d done it.

As with most of their productions, it runs with a multi-talented medium-sized cast, mixing individual and ensemble acting with music, puppetry, and a robot servant “Wheeliam” wheeling around the stage on a hoverboard. Out of the four New Vic Christmas plays I’ve seen, this one was clearly the most ambitious, with one of the other heavily simplified and the other two sticking quite closely to the stories everyone knows and loves. It might not quite have achieved what it set out to, but it did the job the the audience it ended up with, and a Christmas production well chosen.

Beauty and the Beast concludes at the New Vic on the 29th January.

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